Keeping things light in dark times

Rick Maese

THE WASHINGTON POST – Before most performances these days, he spends about 20 minutes applying makeup: white face, red lips, nose and eyebrows, maybe a heart on the cheek. Then he pulls on the rainbow wig, the polka-dot shirt and colourful overcoat. When Charles Kraus is finished transforming into Charles the Clown, he fires up the computer and is just a couple of mouse clicks away from what he does best.

“This is what I’ve always done,” said Kraus, 73, a veteran children’s entertainer with some 12,000 performances under his clown belt, performing at parties, parades, libraries, schools, summer camps and community centres. “And I could tell right away that children needed to laugh now more than ever.”

Kraus is part of a large network of performers from the birthday party circuit – clowns, magicians, balloon artists – who have been shut out of in-person performances because of the novel coronavirus pandemic. They have had to find new ways to connect with children, redirecting their talents into online chats and virtual performances or taking on more creative projects to buoy the spirits of people who might be trapped indoors, feeling isolated or just in need of a smile.

Along with Biscuit, his trusty Golden Retriever puppet, Kraus has been doing free Zoom chats for children most weekdays, telling jokes, sharing artwork and performing magic tricks.

“I knew immediately that I’d be needed. If kids sit in front of a screen all day and just stare and occasionally press a button, they call that interactive. But it’s not really,” said Kraus, who is based in Lake Forest Park, Wash., just north of Seattle. “I just had to do something to contribute in some way that’s truly interactive.”

Steven Jones created a balloon mural to remind others that everyone is in this together. It inspired a larger project that featured works by more than 1,900 balloon artists. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

The pandemic prompted an immediate adjustment for children’s entertainers. Their calendars were wiped clean, but they noticed there was a growing need for their talents. Eric Knaus has been performing for 30 years around the Washington DC, area as The Great Zucchini, making children double over in laughter with jokes and slapstick comedy. He has done nearly 60 virtual performances since the pandemic began, including some he has donated to families struck by layoffs or furloughs.

Knaus has never been particularly tech-savvy but has managed to connect with kids through the screen, chatting back and forth, calling on virtual volunteers for magic tricks and playing interactive games such as hide-and-seek and freeze dance. He has noticed that the children need this outlet, an excuse to laugh and be silly. But so does he.

“It lifts me up,” he said. “It’s really the only thing I’m good at. I don’t have a lot of talents, but I can be silly.”

For many, rousing a smile is both an art and a business. In early March, Steven Jones, a veteran balloon artist, saw his corporate work dry up. He quickly realised that others clients would soon be cancelling as well, reshaping what would normally be a busy time of year for Balloon Designers, based in Issaquah, Washington, just east of Seattle.

“I gave myself two hours to feel sorry for myself and decided this was an opportunity to do all the things that I never had time to do,” he said.

In those early days of the pandemic, Jones had observed some aggressive, short-tempered shoppers at a grocery store, which inspired him to make a balloon sign that read, “Be safe, be kind.” He put it in front of his store to serve as a helpful reminder to others.

“One day I walked in front of the shop to check on something, and a woman was just bawling,” Jones recalled. “I reached out, and she said: ‘I’m fine. I just needed to see this right now.’ At that moment, I thought, ‘If I could have this impact here on my community, what could my industry do on a larger scale?'”

Jones always knew balloons made people smile, but he saw an opportunity for them to motivate, inspire and bring joy. He launched an ambitious project that would bring together balloon artists around the world. He called it One Million Bubbles, and other balloon twisters were encouraged to create inflatable art for public display – in yards, at parks and online.

The result: More than 1,900 balloon artists from 81 countries created elaborate displays and balloon sculptures – a global installation on a local scale, all hashtagged and shared in person and online.

One of the artists who took part was Eddie Lin, a 22-year-old from Edison, New Jersey. Linn was diagnosed with autism at age three. He was nine when he started saying during speech therapy, “I want balloon.” He studied balloon artists on YouTube, quickly learning to twist, create and share his newfound talent.

When a friend told him recently that her mother, who works at a grocery store, was feeling stressed and overwhelmed, he twisted balloons into a shopping cart to boost her spirits. He followed that with an inflatable healthcare worker and then sent a large assortment featuring two hearts to a hospital. One balloon creation – a tall mail carrier – was given to Maganbhai Patel, a 79-year-old Postal Service worker who had recovered from COVID-19.

“I think this is a way that Eddie expresses himself,” his mother, Jenny, said. “It’s his way of saying thank you.”

And for most of the performers, it’s also a way to stay connected. Kraus, the veteran clown, has noticed limitations to performing through a computer, but he is reminded daily of the impact he can have and the way laughter draws people together.

When he performs, the audience often includes grandparents who haven’t visited their grandchildren in several weeks, or family, friends and classmates who have been isolated from each other since March. Suddenly they are all gathered in one place, watching the same goofy act. He and Biscuit are no longer limited to bookings within driving distance of the Seattle area and can now perform virtually for young crowds all over the world without leaving the house.

Kraus has entertained in board rooms and hospital rooms, the homes of billionaires and homeless shelters. The laughter sounds the same, an infectious sound that celebrates the good times, helps through the bad and draws people together during the absolute worst.

“That’s why I’m still here doing this,” he said. “Children need to feel safe. They need to smile. And someone needs to help make them smile.”